Echo Student Ministry Parent Forum


Rooted in Community

Rooted-Title-2

It has been over two decade since the Search Institute released their framework of “developmental assets,” a set of skills, experiences, relationships, and behaviors that enable young people to develop into successful and contributing adults.  The more of these assets young people acquire, the better their chances of succeeding in school and becoming happy, healthy, and contributing members of their communities.  When it comes to the assets that support strong, thriving, enduring faith, being rooted in community would be close to the top of my list.

The support structure of solid relationships does more to support and encourage growth in faith than any other single factor I can identify.  Students that are surrounded by nurturing and multidimensional relationships have an immense advantage on the road to thriving faith.  That said, in our hyper-connected culture it can be ironically difficult to connect meaningfully to life-giving community.  We tend to opt in for countless shallow digital connections and neglect the kind of face-to-face and heart-to-heart soul supporting friendship that is slow to develop and difficult to maintain.  The early church leaders described such beautiful unity and profound connection that defined the Jesus movement, but it can seem kind of foreign to our experience of casual and superficial relationships.  Peter encouraged one early community of faith with these words: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  (1 Peter 2:9-10)  I love this: you weren’t always a people, but now you are the people of God.  Not individuals, but a community; a beautiful union of beautiful people being remade in the likeness and image of God.  This reality is something that can anchor your soul.  If you push your roots down into community, you will find true strength.  Here are a few aspects of community that teens seem to struggle with:

  1. Multi Generational Community – This is a complicated issue, but we need to talk about it.  Teenagers often neglect relationships with people above and below them, they know how to relate to people in their “tribe,” but they lack the skills to relate to other generations. There is something missing when your community of faith only includes people from your generation. There is something shallow, something lacking, when you don’t have the diversity of voices from other generations.  Not everyone is in the same place, and not everyone is in the same stage of life. We have segregated our ministry environments into age groups for good reasons, but this has some drawbacks as well.  It provides very little opportunity to do life alongside adults (even older adults) that follow Jesus.  We cannot learn from them, and they cannot learn from us. This is not an easy problem for us to solve, but we need to imagine creative solutions.  We need to find places where people can interact across the generations, enriching our community in meaningful ways.  I want to build a culture where we serve alongside people from different generations.
  1. Multi-Tribal Community –When you are a child, your world is impossibly small.  Children are very self-centered.  They quickly include mom and dad in their tribe, because they really need their parents.  For a long time, your world is pretty small.  Your world consists of you and your family.  Then you go off to school and your world gets a little bigger.  By the time you are a teenager, you might have a firmly established tribe of other teens that are like you.  When you grow and develop, you end up leaning into that tribe to establish your autonomy from your family of origin. Yet when you really mature, your world gets even bigger.  You can move past your self-centered world, even your tribal identity, and begin to embrace a larger chunk of humanity.  This is one of the marks of spiritual maturity: when your community goes beyond your tribe. When Jesus chose his twelve disciples, he intentionally selected people across a diverse spectrum of cultural and political tribes within Judaism.  For example, Simon the Zealot likely hated and resented Levi the tax collector.  There were so many barriers that should have prevented them from connection, but they became united in Christ anyway.  Things that divide tribes in the cafeteria and in the hallways should not divide once you step into the church. This is a family where such things are irrelevant because of Jesus.
  1. Multi-Dimensional Community – the other element that I think is essential to community is multi-dimensionality.  What I mean here is to have people above you, investing in and pouring into you, to have people alongside you supporting and encouraging you, and finally to have people below you that you are investing in and pouring into them.  Having the right people around you makes such a difference.  Learning to relate to others on different levels is one of the hallmarks of maturity.  This is not automatic, it is something you seek out, develop, and a skill you need to learn.
    1. Mentors investing in you – Learning to be invested in, to receive guidance and correction and inspiration from people further along in their spiritual journey is a skill we need.  Everyone wants mentors, but this generation seems to have an unhealthy attitude about what a mentor is supposed to do. Be careful not to allow a sense of “entitlement” to creep into this relationship. Be willing to be the one that does the work. You are the one that wants to learn, you should be the one pursuing the relationship. If you want good mentors, you need to understand that good people are busy people.
    2. Friends alongside you – Learning to lock arms and live alongside others is another essential skill.  We all have friends, but I mean something different than just having any friend. This is someone that gives you strength and helps you be a better version of yourself. It is a friend of the soul.
    3. People you can invest in – Having people that you are actively investing in and intentionally helping can make such a huge difference in your spiritual development. Who are you pouring yourself into? Who is looking up to you? You will grow more through this kind of relationship than any other. When you learn to be a contributor and not just a consumer, you are moving toward a new level of maturity.


Rooted in Love
May 4, 2015, 4:52 pm
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Rooted-content-1Echo continued our conversation about strengthening the roots of our faith with a reality that Jesus identified as the center of Kingdom ethics – Love.  Strong, enduring, Christ-centered faith must be rooted in Love.  Jesus prayed that love would be the defining characteristic of His new community. Jesus taught that the root of all the commandments is love. Jesus helped us imagine a different sort of humanity, one where selfish and hateful attitudes are replaced with selfless love as we allow the life of Christ to grow within us. He talked about being connected to the Vine, the source of life. As we learn to abide in Him, we have life. Apart from the Vine we can do nothing. This kind of love has very little to do with our culture’s definition of the term.  What if our love was rooted not in our emotions or in our feelings, but in our connection to Jesus? Think about the beauty that would be built in our world if we loved like God loves. Look at what Paul prayed for the community of faith in Ephesus:

Ephesians 3:14-21 – “I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may have power, together will all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Paul prays that the Ephesians would receive specific knowledge – the knowledge of the Love of Christ.  Paul prays that through the Spirit the glorious riches of God’s power will strengthen God’s people in their “inner being.”  Don’t miss this.  This is not a shallow intellectual understanding, like you know this trivial fact or that. Paul prays for the Spirit of God to impart something wonderful deep in the hearts of His people.  This is phrase, the “inner being,” in the Greek language refers to the personal core of each individual.  It is the seat of the will, the center of belief, and the conscience.  Paul is praying that the Holy Spirit would impart truth so deep down in them it would change their instincts and impact the way they see everything.  We use the phrase “change of heart” to describe this kind of internal transformation.  This is about the core, our true selves, and our deepest held beliefs.  Think about the way that you know your name, your family relationships, or the loyalty of your best friend. This is the kind of knowledge Paul has in mind. It is about Jesus coming and dwelling in our hearts through faith.

This transformation, this impartation has us rooted and well founded in love (agape).  Paul’s prayer is that through the Spirit, these people would experience the love of Christ at the core of their being.  Paul is talking here about a power from within – that power comes from the knowing and experiencing the crazy-big Love of Christ! I invite you: get ROOTED in the LOVE of Christ. Let your roots grow down deep into the soil of His Love for you.

This love is inexhaustible.  I love the poetry of Paul’s dimensional description of Christ’s love. When Paul prays that they would understand how wide, long, high and deep the love of Christ is for them, he is inviting them to wonder at the expanse of Christ’s love.  It is wide enough to include every individual of every kind in every age in every world.  There was no limit to the length that Christ would go to reach us with His love, going even to the cross.  In depth, Christ descended to the humility and poverty of the human condition, accepting even death.  In its height, the love of Christ raises us higher than we could ever reach on our own, seating us in Heaven with our Father as His children and heirs.   No one is outside the love of Christ, no place is beyond its reach.  Every time we learn something new about the Love of God, there is yet more to learn.  It is inexhaustible.  We learn this truth, according to Paul, together with all the saints.  It binds us one to another in unity.   Here is something that we need to wrestle with: we enjoy the limitless love of God for us…but we do not always easily accept the limitless and sweeping love for other people.  We struggle with the idea of God making no distinction between “us” and “them.”  We like to think of ourselves as worthy of the love of God, while others maybe not so much.

This love surpasses understanding.  This is a huge point for you to consider.  We sometimes treat the love of God as a simple thing that we can easily understand.  The love of Jesus is the subject of simple nursery songs and slogans. I think teaching children the love of Jesus is a great idea, but I also want people to experience the power and depth and magnitude of God’s love. Paul is talking here about something so vast and expansive that we have yet to wrap our understanding around its measure.  Paul himself talks about struggling to grasp the mystery of God’s Love.  Paul is saying here that comprehending the love of God is a spiritual exercise that can keep them busy for the rest of their lives.  This is a little paradoxical, talking about “knowing what surpasses knowledge.”

This love is unconditional.  We spend so much time looking for affirmation on the outside.  We wonder if we are enough and we ask that question in every relationship and in every moment.  We endure nagging little voices, disgusting voices, lying voices, that tell us we are no good, that we do not matter, that we are not enough.  We are in constant search from the world around us for affirmation that we matter.  We ache in our emptiness, longing for approval and for affirmation.  Paul is describing something completely different here.  Paul describes affirmation and truth that come from within.  They come from the overflow of the love of Christ in our “inner being.”  Jesus fills our hearts with mind-blowing reality-defining truth-amplifying love.  One of the most powerful realities in scripture is the way that God loved us before we met any criteria or performed in some certain way or established the right conditions.  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  While we were enemies of God in our minds, God reached for us.  There are no conditions that we need to meet to establish this love; God loves us because we are His.  I believe this – if you can get this truth down in your core, so much that tempts you and distracts you will be rendered powerless. You will find the kind of strength that David rested in when he wrote: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.” You will enjoy the confidence of Paul that wrote: “If God is for me than who can be against me?” You will find the unshakable truth that we are more than conquerors and that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

If you get the love of God into your soul, into your inner being, everything will change.  Everything else will fall into place. If you can get how much God loves you and cares for you and longs to be near you past your doubts, past your fears, past your rationalizations and into your core – if you know deep down in your DNA that God loves you and YOU ARE HIS, if the love of God sinks deep into your core, no lie can affect you.  No suggestion or insinuation can distract you.  No temptation can destroy you.  You will be rooted in the love of God.  Your identity will be secure; your confidence will be unassailable.  This is the core of rock solid faith.  God is FOR you.  God adores you.  The love of Jesus empowers and transforms you.  Love will change you.  Love will transform you.  Love will perfect you.  If you accept it.



Rooted in Grace
April 30, 2015, 2:04 pm
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Rooted-Title-2

In my time as a follower and as a minster of Jesus, I have seen some students walk away from or fade away from their faith. Other students have endured over the years, growing into a person that embodies the love and beauty of Jesus. There are all kinds of reasons for the difference, but the consistent reality behind thriving faith is deep roots. We spend so much time worrying about what is above the surface of our lives. Looking the right way, sounding the right way, and having the right reputation. Yet what is on the surface does not always reveal what is beneath the surface. I have seen so many pretenders, so many people that looked the part and talked the talk but beneath the surface they were far from God and faking it. This is what Jesus meant when he focused on the heart and past the externals. The invisible roots, the support structure, are the most important need your soul. Appearances account for very little. True fruit comes from deep roots. Echo is exploring in this series realities that we need to grow down into, to become firmly rooted in. Colossians 2:6-7 – “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

 

Rooted in Grace – Far too often, the bedrock of the Jesus Way gets replaced by some list of rules or expected behaviors. I see this over and over again. Rules are easy. People assume that rules will keep us holy, that rules will enable us to let people know the boundaries and the expectations of our movement. It helps us to be tough on sin and to do the right thing. Except it doesn’t. It doesn’t work. People get frustrated with something so shallow and so dependent on human effort. They fail their way into frustration or they fake their way into isolation and irrelevance. Show me someone who cannot accept the frustrating and mystifying reality of GRACE and I will show you someone whose faith is destined for failure. We don’t want to admit it, but we need grace. This is the stronghold of your identity in Christ and the reality that secures your relationship with God.  When you can get the truth of God’s grace deep down in your soul and you let it change the way you think about everything, you will never be the same again.  When you finally give up in your effort to earn the love of God, when you finally surrender your ability to produce the favor of God with your performance…you will discover the freedom grace offers.

  1. We needed the Grace of Jesus. Check out Ephesians 2:1-10 – We were by nature objects of wrath. But because of His love, God made us alive. It is by grace, not by works. This is not something we like to talk about, but this is an important reality to internalize. We were by nature objects of wrath. I know, that it is incredibly unpopular to talk about God’s wrath. The fact remains: humankind is in open rebellion against God. We are enemies of God in our own minds, in our darkened understanding we have made Him our enemy and placed ourselves in a state of rebellion. I know your objection: you are a good person. We all think that about ourselves. But our good is not good enough nor will it ever be. Something is broken on a deep level, deep down at the core of our being, and we cannot repair it. This is not bad news; it is the opposite of bad news. It is great news! It is the Gospel! For while we were depraved and broken and without hope, Jesus came and lavished us with His mercy and grace. Sin is a deeper problem than bad choices; it is a cancer of the heart. It is corruption down to your very nature. You and I in our effort are unable to fix this. This is one of the hardest realities to really accept even if it is easy to understand.   Grace is unmerited.  It is so difficult to accept something we do not deserve in a culture so highly focused on merit. It is part of capitalism; people get what they work for. We honor industry and initiative; we honor those individuals who make something of themselves. Yet here in God’s Kingdom, as one of the most basic and fundamental realities, we have this idea that we don’t make ourselves into anything good. God alone is remaking us. It is His grace that transforms us. If it depends on you and I and our imperfect effort, we couldn’t do it. God takes what belongs to Him and gives it to us. In this way, Grace is different than mercy. Mercy means that we will not receive the judgment and wrath we deserve. Grace is more than that. Grace means we will receive the favor and blessing and love that we do not deserve. We often think wrongly of grace that it means unlimited “second chances” so we can do better. This is not the Gospel. The Gospel is an even better story than mercy wiping the slate clean every time we fail. The Gospel is the offer to become someone better than we could become on our own. In the grace of Jesus, we move from enemies of God to His friends. We become His masterpiece. God’s grace transforms us into the kind of people that don’t want the junk that God’s mercy had to forgive us of. It is God’s power given to transform us.
  1. We need the Grace of Jesus. Every time I preach a message like this, or I talk about the wonders of grace, someone in their mind or out loud will think: “That is too easy.” They argue, if it is completely about grace and not connected with human effort in any way, than the most horrible of people are in the same category as me. I’m not sure why you are so certain you aren’t among the most horrible of people, but let’s talk about this anyway. Most religious people think we need some rules somewhere or people are going to walk all over the grace of God. The dichotomy is between two extremes: legalism and antinomianism. These are presented like the only two options. I don’t think so. I think that anyone that tramples the grace of Jesus has never truly understood it. People were saying this kind of thing in the early church as well, that if grace is so freely given we should just run around doing whatever we want because it doesn’t matter. Their error is in mistaking something that is free with something that is cheap. Grace is not cheap because it is free, but because it is free some people will hold it to be cheap. We value what costs us. This is what Dietrich Bonheoffer was trying to correct when he reminded us about the cost of grace. Costly Grace is something we all need to understand. It is costly because it cost the most beautiful life that was ever lived. It is grace because it gives to us the only true life. But let me go back to the idea that rules are going to make us better. They won’t. Paul has a long theological explanation of this is Romans 5-9. Paul’s argument is that GRACE is what is going to set you free from sin, not LAW. Romans 6:14“For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” Paul argues the rule intensifies the draw toward sin. Paul’s argument is that we are now dead to sin because we were buried with Jesus and raised again with Him. The life we have now is Jesus living within us. This is grace. It is the life of Christ that we did not deserve but we so desperately need. We can live into this truth! Elsewhere, Paul says this: Titus 2:11-15 – “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people.  It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope…” Our hope, strength, and encouragement to live right come not from willpower or fear or rules, but from grace. When you have received the beautiful and wonderful grace of Jesus, it breaks the power of sin. It dissolves addiction. It busts open the prison of guilt and shame and the need to perform. There is no greater motivation than to live a beautiful life than the beautiful and amazing grace of Jesus. When you live by grace, righteousness becomes gratitude; it becomes the overflow of love instead of obligation of law.
  1. We will need the Grace of Jesus. This is a complicated world in its corrupted state. Things are not always easy. Even with the grace of Jesus at work in your heart, redeeming and restoring your better nature, you will fail. As a pastor, this is something I want everyone in “my fold” to understand – how to fail. You will fail. This is my biggest issue with a merit-based system of faith. It doesn’t know what to do with failure. It doesn’t understand the heart of God. It promotes pretending as you struggle and hiding after you fall. Both of these behaviors are spiritually destructive and damaging to community. It is exhausting to live a faith that depends solely on your own merit. Judging others is exhausting. Judging yourself is hard work as well. You will need grace. You will need grace to be restored and to try again. You will need grace to become the person that Jesus knows you are. I don’t want anyone to leave our ministry without understanding this. Put your roots down deep into the soil of GRACE. Sink your faith into the reality that your standing with God is not dependent on your performance. God’s love is not conditioned on your obedience. Your relationship with God is rooted in God’s faithfulness and not yours. So grow tall. Grow deep. Withstand the winds of challenge, failure, and doubt. Your roots will hold. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God.


Peace on Earth?
December 11, 2014, 11:51 am
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Prince-of-Peace-Title

Peace on Earth.  This is a nice thought, but it is also a thought few of us actually take seriously.  It is idealistic, not realistic.  It is a nice sentiment, but it is not possible…or so we often think.  Our world is full strife and conflict.  Right now, our country is struggling to hold it together over racial tension.  Violence, mistrust, anger, and fear are spreading like wildfire.  Last week, on the same day the Christmas tree was lit in Rockefeller Center, riots broke out in protest of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer that choked a man to death.  We continue to hear reports about beheadings and public executions at the hands of ISIS.  It is hard to imagine peace on earth right now.  The same was true 2800 years ago, yet the prophet Isaiah wrote the following promise in a flash of inspiration.  This is a revelation of a better world, hope for a better future, and it would become the center of messianic longing for the remnant of Israel:

“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
    you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.”

-Isaiah 9:1-7

This promise was originally received in a time of great strife, instability, and anxiety.  King after king in Judah led the people further away from God and into idolatry.  Threatened with invasion from both Israel and Syria, Ahaz King of Judah reached out to the Assyrian Empire for help.  He could have trusted God for help, but he went against the advice of the prophet.  Assyria is the regional empire in whose shadow these small nations dwell under constant threat of invasion, annihilation, or annexation.  This is a bit like a mouse asking the cat to help resolve a conflict with another mouse.  Now, prompted by the invitation to intervene, Assyrian invasion of Judah is eminent.  As Isaiah predicted, Assyria assists in solving the present crisis only to replace it with another: the chances of being wiped out by the Assyrian war machine are almost certain.  People are afraid.  There is conflict and war all around them.  This passage is God’s promise in the midst of this horrible situation.  God is in control.  Destruction is coming, but God still has a plan.  The promise is a coming “messiah,” a deliverer that will set wrongs to right and bring lasting and true peace. At first, people assumed this anointed ruler was the young king Hezekiah. Long after Hezekiah’s death however, a remnant of God’s people longed for someone who would fulfill this promise completely. Even with this expectation, I am not sure anyone anticipated Jesus Christ. This passage was famously and masterfully incorporated into Handel’s Messiah, one of the most moving pieces of music in history.  Jesus is the “prince of peace” on a level that no one saw coming.

This is a promise of peace beyond human ability.  The theme of this section of Isaiah’s oracles is that every human solution to the nation’s problems will fail.  Their demise is the vehicle that will take them to a place of realization that only God can be trusted.  God’s revelation of light has come to those walking in great darkness.  It is when there seems to be no hope that God’s hope is most evident.  When Ahaz tried to trust in political alliances and military might, he ended up making a bigger mess of the situation.  God’s people have turned away from Him to covenant with pagan nations and trust in their strength, and they will reap the destruction they sowed.  The calamity is not the end of the story, but a chance for God to use the pain as a powerful tutor.  The promise of the Messiah does not come to a proud nation glorifying in its strength, but to a beaten nation, one tied in the furnace of affliction.  No, the darker the days, the brighter the flame of the dawn! The mention of Midian’s defeat is a reference to the story of Gideon, a story that underscores God’s strength and human weakness. God eliminated any cause for Gideon or his fighters to have confidence in human strength by dramatically reducing their number to 300 in a conflict against thousands.  God ensured that everyone would know the victory was His alone.  Where Judah has presently arrived in crisis because of their trust in human systems, alliances, and power – this reference is indicting.  They have led themselves into darkness, but God will lead them out of it.  The truth is that God is a better savior than we can be sinners, and He is better and finding us than we are at losing our way.  We can continue in rebellion, but not without great effort and determined resistance to the One who seeks to re-write our tragic story.  God is interested in bringing us something that we cannot achieve through human effort.

This is also a promise of peace beyond human imagination.  The prophet uses the symbols of the warrior’s boots and the bloody garments to represent warfare.  The rhythmic sound of marching boots is a powerful symbol of the noise of battle, while the bloody garments are a symbol for the pain and destruction left in the wake of war.  The poem does not describe victory in terms of one combatant overcoming his opponent, but the actual end of conflict.  The very implements of war will be burned up.  For this coming king, peace is not realized through conquest but through the end of warfare.  The destruction brought by war will itself be destroyed.  This prince is not a fierce warrior, but a little child.  A child appears insignificant and weak, but with God this weakness can be strength.  His rule is not established in military conquest but in God’s power.  This is not the power of the sword; it is the power over the hearts of humanity.  He reigns over a people transformed through their obedience to God’s will.  It is God’s Kingdom, and it will endure forever.  There is something unspeakably beautiful in the picture that Isaiah paints if you have eyes to see it.  This is a world at peace, a moral order, held together not by force or the threat of force but by love.  He is describing the Kingdom of God, where God’s will is established on earth as it is in heaven.  This cannot be achieved by political systems, though politics are not irrelevant.  It cannot be achieved through social work or through humanitarian aid projects. Human civilization will not climb to this lofty reality through technological advancement.  Organized religion cannot establish it through its programs.  This kind of peace, what the Hebrews called shalom, is almost a dream. This peace is only possible when people surrender their tools, their minds, and their wills to the Kingdom of God.  This king of peace is different than the warmongering empire builders and political connivers of Isaiah’s day (and our own!).  He is the one who establishes peace, not just advocates for it.

Human kingdoms are often established in tyranny and conquest, upheaval and rebellion.  The foundation of God’s Kingdom is justice and righteousness.  This was such a difficult thing even for the disciples to understand. They were still looking at Jesus like a powerful conqueror all the way up until the cross. It was only after the resurrection that the nature of God’s Kingdom and the depth of the peace that Jesus was to establish became clear.  This Advent season, walk toward peace.  Allow God’s Spirit to help you imagine a better world, then invite God’s Spirit to help you live into that vision. 



Imago Dei – Thoughts from Echo’s Fall Retreat part 2
November 18, 2014, 3:15 pm
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The first weekend of November, Echo spent some time retreating with the idea that we were made in the Image of God. We reflect something of his essence and nature by virtue of our creation.  This image has been marred and obscured by our selfishness and our broken human condition, but it is there nonetheless as a stamp on our hearts, the fingerprints of our artistic creator.  God can see in us not only who we were and who we are, but also who we can become with His help. You know who you are; you know where you have been and what you have done. But only God knows who you can become; what you are capable of. Ephesians 2:10“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” You are God’s work of art, and you are becoming an artist at work. God wants to express his beauty in this world through you. You are the canvas on which he will paint a better future.

Saturday night brought us into the story of an unsung hero of the New Testament narrative: Barnabas.
Barnabas is often thought of as a supporting character, if the book of Acts were made into a movie, he would not recieve top billing.  Still, he is an essential part of the story.  We are introduced to Barnabas first in Acts 9:19-31. Barnabas took a chance on Paul, choosing to see who he could be and not only who he had been.  This is one of the most powerful decisions in history.  Barnabas did what God does: he made a broken person his personal project.  He poured into Paul, he taught, mentored, modeled, and instructed him.  This was the disposition of Barnabas toward everyone. The other disciples were afraid.  Paul (Saul) had done some terrible things.  Barnabas wasn’t going to be put off by what Paul had done, he had the ability to see what Paul could do.  This is what is so powerful about Barnabas – he is someone that embraces his identity so fully and so completely he becomes a work of art and an artist at work. If you asked him about it, he would just say: “It’s what I do. I believe in people. I help them find their way.  I’m a fixer.”  Barnabas is a builder, no less than Nehemiah.  Barnabas is a composer, no less than David with his harp. Barnabas is a creator, no less than the finest of craftsmen.  Embracing your unique identity and living into your unique story is such a huge part of what it means to be creative and to be a creator.  The world is changed when people embrace this.  Do what you were born to do, do it well, and do it with passion and purpose.  Not everyone is called to be a missionary.  Not everyone is called to be a preacher.  But everyone is created as a beautiful, living, breathing, screaming work of art to go and be an artist at work creating and building and doing good.

It starts when we allow ourselves to dream.  Imagination is the playground of God.  Your internal world orders and informs your external world.  First we dream and then we act.  First we think, then we create.  It starts when you allow yourself to believe in the invisible.  See past the evident, see past the obvious, allow God to show you the possibility of what isn’t there.  Living with mission always starts with learning to see through the eyes of Jesus.  You need to learn to see the possibility in the world around you.  You need to learn to see the potential in the people around you.  There is so much darkness and brokenness and death in our world.  There is so much pain, hurt, and suffering. These are obvious.  Learn to see where God is at work, where God wants to be at work.  Learn to see, like Barnabas, when no one else can see, the story of life and hope weaving into the pages of pain and suffering.  This involves the imagination and it involves faith.  A brilliant college professor once beautifully corrected me.  He told me I spent too much time reading the wrong books.  My reading was largely in the pursuit of information.  He told me that what I needed was to find inspiration, not only more information.  I needed to grow in my imagination, not only in my intellect.  Intellect without imagination leaves you hopeless and detached, you understand what is broken but you cannot dream or envision a better world or a better story.  We have much to learn from Barnabas here.  What Barnabas did was change the narrative of Paul’s life. Look at the contrast between v. 21 and v. 27.

21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21)

27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. (Acts 9:27)

Paul had been defined by what he had done, by who he had been.  The story being told was the story of his darkest moments and the story of his failures.  People looked at him through the lens of brokenness and dysfunction.  Barnabas told a different story.  He changed the narrative.  He told the story of Paul’s encounter with Jesus, of the transformation that had begun in his life.  He told the story of hope, and of a journey toward a better future.  This is unspeakably powerful.  When someone chooses to believe in you like this, it can change everything.  He is a hero that we should get to know.  I want to imagine like Barnabas.  I want to dream of a better world.  I want to believe in people.  I want to believe that with Jesus in the story, the narrative can change.

The bottom line is this: God wants to imagine and create a better a future through you.  There is hope for your tribe, for your neighborhood, and for your city because you are in it.  You are the agents of God’s plan.  This happens when you become yourself and then you unleash the creative force inside you.  Live into the story of the Imago Dei.  You are a work of art in the hands of God, and he wants to unleash you as an artist at work.  I am talking about your life being an expression of the beauty of God’s Image.  Nothing is more powerful to change and to restore and to create than a person doing exactly what they were born to do.  It is like seeing an artist at work.  It isn’t what talents, gifts, and strengths are given to an individual, but what that individual does with whatever material they have been given.  That is what makes someone an artist.  What can you create with the material God has given you? God’s vision to transform the world comes through you.  You can be a chef. You can be a designer. You can be dancer. You can be a hydratic geologist. What you do is nearly as important as who you are. You are an expression of God’s design. You and your community of faith are to image God into this world. Create the future that you see through the eyes of God. Bring the possibility and the potential that God’s Spirit breathes into you from imagination and into reality.  Image the unseen.  Think about how the world would be different if each of us left every person we ever met better than we found them.  Go and enjoy life.  Go and do something you love, because people who enjoy life make life more enjoyable for others.  Being creative means bringing meaning into every moment.  It means living fully alive.  Grow in curiosity, imagination, creativity, and courage.

Someone once described the Imago Dei in terms of function like an angled mirror. We are to reflect the glory of God, the will of God, the beauty of God out into the world.  We bear the Image of God, so we are the Mission of God.  You are blessed to be a blessing.  You are a work of art, and an artist at work.  We are entrusted with both promise and purpose, all for the glory of the Beautiful One.  We are called to become someone beautiful, build something beautiful, for the glory of the beautiful one.



Imago Dei – thoughts from Echo’s Fall Retreat part 1
November 17, 2014, 6:00 pm
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Imago-Dei-Trefoil

Echo’s Fall Retreat theme was Imago Dei, a Latin phrase that means “the image of God.”  The primeval prologue of Genesis includes thought about God’s creation of humanity: “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This is a profound truth – human beings were created in the image of God, to bear the likeness of God and share in something of the essence of their divine creator. What does this mean? Sometimes this seems pretty far from the truth. War, poverty, injustice, bullies, and pride – these things seem pretty terrible.  Yet everyone has a faint idea of the way it should be even if we have never seen this perfection. It makes you wonder what God had in mind originally. This makes me wonder: does God see something about us that we struggle to recognize?

God can see in us not only who we were and who we are, but also who we can become with His help. You know who you are; you know where you have been and what you have done. But only God knows who you can become and what you are capable of.  We explored this concept throughout the weekend, rooted in the extraordinary words of Paul to the Ephesians.  Ephesians 2:10“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  You are God’s work of art, and you are becoming an artist at work. God wants to express his beauty in this world through you. You are the canvas on which he will paint a better future.

Friday night we explored the story of Moses’ invitation to join God in the work of rescuing the captive Israelites from Egypt in Exodus 3.  Moses had a very complicated and difficult life story.  He is certainly not a stranger to the brokenness of humanity. He has been through some dramatic and traumatic events in his life.  In his encounter with God, he is invited to be someone he never thought he could be.  He is invited to do something far beyond his wildest dreams.  This moment changes everything about the way Moses sees himself, God, and the world. The essence of what God tells Moses is this: God sees the suffering. God is concerned about the suffering. God has a plan to heal and restore, and that plan is you.

Moses’ question to God is “Who am I, that I should do this?” That is a very important question. Who is Moses? His story is complicated. He is not exactly a “functional and whole” individual; Moses is someone with baggage.  God wants him to save an oppressed people group, but he is an 80-year-old abandoned orphan raised by oppressors that is guilty of murder and a fugitive from justice. Everyone, including Moses, has counted him out for the race toward anything heroic or remarkable.  Moses asks “Who am I…” and God answers: “I AM.” Moses is concerned with his problems and his past. Moses keeps telling God that he is less…God is inviting Moses to become MORE. God was unconcerned about his past. He was unconcerned about his faults, failures, and deficiencies. God doesn’t care about those things. In the eyes of God, he sees not the problem but the potential. He sees not just who you are and who you have been, but who you could be with his help. He can see the treasure in the trash. He can see the beauty in what is broken. All of us have some story, some things in our past that we can use to disqualify ourselves from greatness. We are all imperfect and broken. But God is an artist. He is a restorer. He is truly amazing in his ability to bring life out of death. This is what he does! This is who He is! He asks Moses to trust HIM. Trust in God, not yourself. You know who you are; you know where you have been and what you have done. But only God knows who you can become and what you are capable of with His help. God can see in you the potential, the beauty, and the remarkable! The way a painter brings color to her canvas, a dancer choreographs his routine, a potter guides the clay – this is the same way God wants to work with you.  You are the medium for the Greatest Creative Force in existence.  You are what God uses to create art.  You are where he does his best work.  Your life is what God is working on restoring, perfecting, and creating.  Your story is the book he is writing.  You are the canvas that God paints upon.  You are his project.  He wants to do this with all of creation, but it starts with you.  Your surrendered life is a work of art in the hands of a masterful artist.

Friday night ended with this invitation, extended to us by virtue of our creation: Become someone beautiful. It is in you, the fingerprint of God – you were created in His image. Let your life be a work of art. Let your life be the canvas on which God paints, the clay that God molds with intention and design.

This is the video that set the tone for the weekend.  The voice is an artistic preacher named Erwin MacManus, author of the book The Artisan Soul.  The clips used are all the work of the amazing artists in the Vimeo community.  The music is by Jonsi from the album We Bought a Zoo.



Alethiea – Relational Truth

Aletheia-1

What is Truth? Confused and perplexed by the case of Jesus, Pontius Pilate ends his conversation with a great question: “What is Truth?” This question is still being asked today. Philosophers have debated it; religion has made claims about it; and it seems like cultural attitudes about truth are always shifting.  The word that Pilate uses is the Greek word Aletheia. It is a word with rich meaning. It does mean truth, but it carries the idea of sincerity, actuality, and reality. It refers to what actually is. Is there something called “truth” that is defined as “that which corresponds to reality,” and if so, what does it mean for you and I? Truth is hard to define, especially now in the postmodern world. Some people think truth is impossible to define or know. Jesus called himself “the Truth” and taught that his enemy was the “father of lies.” This is one of the most essential questions for each of us to settle, because what you believe determines how you behave. Echo HIgh School had a four week conversation exploring the concept of truth, especially the nature of the spiritual truth in the teaching of Jesus.  

John 14:15-27 – 

15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[a] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Of all the gospel writers, John explores the teaching of Jesus on truth most often and most elegantly.  Here, Jesus promises to his disciples that the Parakletos will be with them after he is gone.  He is an ally, an advocate.  He is literally “someone called in,” to help and to heal and to teach.  Jesus called Him (or it (pneuma), or her (ruach)) the “Spirit of Truth.”  He will guide us into truth, he will continue the process where God’s truth becomes known to humanity, something we call “revelation.”  This passage has some pretty cool implications: 

  1. Spiritual Truth can be questioned freely because it is durable.  Sometimes people treat “the truth” like it is made of glass.  It is very fragile, so you should handle it with care.  They limit their exposure to other points of view for this reason.  This attitude is what gives Thomas, the questioner in this passage a negative reputation. He has the nickname “doubting Thomas.” I think it is unfair, and more to the point I think it dangerous. Look at how he responded to the cryptic teaching of Jesus in John 14:1-17.  There is something remarkable about Thomas – he is not afraid to give a truthful answer: “I don’t understand.”  At this moment, Jesus is looking at a lot of confused faces. The other guys have no idea what Jesus is saying either, but they aren’t the type that will risk the question. They care far too much about what other people think. There was one among them who could never say that he understood what he did not understand, and that was Thomas. He expresses his doubt and his failure to understand, and the wonderful thing is the question of an honest man provokes one of the greatest sayings of Jesus ever. He has honest questions and is brave enough to ask them. Never be ashamed of having questions or admitting you do not understand something. God is not afraid of your questions, so Echo will always be a place that is open and honest about your questions. That means we are committed to giving honest answers even when they aren’t simple, and that no question is ever “out of bounds.” We are not afraid of doubt.  Doubt is often the invitation to explore an issue more honestly and to understand an issue more thoroughly.  Doubt often leads to deeper and more complete truth.
  1. Spiritual Truth should be held humbly because it is progressive.  This is a VERY important passage when it comes to understanding Jesus’ view of truth.  John 16:12-15 –12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

    Truth is progressive. Jesus had more to reveal, revelation was not over.  There is more to learn about God, there is more to know about Christ.  This is often misunderstood and the cause of much trouble in faith.  Often, people think of Christianity as something that was established once finally and perfectly, and that the only task for the present is to look carefully at what Jesus did and said in the past and that should give us all we need going forward.  I am not sure this works.  Jesus did not give a perfect and complete revelation about God’s kingdom to the disciples.  He could not have.  Revelation is progressive, and a person can only be taught what they are able to understand.  God has always worked this way: he meets people within the limits of their understanding and sometimes within the shortcomings of their culture.  This means that the Christian faith (and theology) must be alive, it cannot be the static and wooden practice of studying the past saying of a long dead teacher.  It needs to be more than that.  It is not only concerned with what God said and what God revealed in the past, but it must also be concerned with what God is doing and what God is saying and revealing now and even tomorrow.  This is SO important for the way we practice our faith.  It is a mistake to think of faith only in terms of ancient patters and established “truth.”  Our faith needs to be alive; it needs to be able to grow.  Our world has fallen victim to the opposite: to a dead and lifeless religion that is solely concerned with the past and pays no attention to the pressing matters of the present and the future.  Jesus describes here the possibility of a faith that evolves and grows to face the challenges of new generations and the complications of the advancing human story.  How does this happen, since Jesus is no longer with us? The accounts of those that knew him are left behind, but they are done.  There are not going to be any new discoveries about Jesus unearthed in a cave somewhere.  Jesus gives us the answer: He is gone, but he did not leave his followers alone.  He gave his followers the Holy Spirit; the “Spirit of Truth.”  The word we use to talk about how the Spirit brings God’s truth to us is called “revelation.”  It is like the lights come on.  This is a glorious promise if you can understand it and grasp it! This should help us deal with passages from the Bible that trouble us or offend our conscience.  There are many times when the Bible seems archaic in its virtues and even inferior in its ethic compared to the modern world.  Please understand me, I think that scripture has much to teach our culture about morality and ethics and the heart of God.  I think it is the supreme revelation of God’s character and nature.  However, there are times where what God revealed to ancient people in the context of their ancient culture seems backwards and inferior compared to what we know today.  This is fine if you understand that God cannot take humanity from the start to the finish in one step.  God’s goal is to advance us as a culture one step closer to the ideal of His Kingdom, and sometimes a step in the right direction doesn’t seem like it is going far enough if you are already advanced past that position.  However, if you were the one on the other side it might truly be as far as your legs could reach.  God needs to get people moving in the right direction, even if it is not all the way down the road.  God is a patient teacher in this regard.  This also means that God is not done yet helping us step toward his ideal.  When we look into the ancient truth of scripture, sometimes we need to discern the direction God was having humanity move to know how to continue down the road, especially when applying the text woodenly as it is written will not do.  There is progress in terms of redemptive movement.  Revelation continues because Jesus is alive and His Spirit continues to work within us guiding us into His truth.

  1. Spiritual Truth can be known relationally because it is personal.  Here is the most important thing to understand when it comes to spiritual truth.  You do not relate to spiritual truth like science relates to a bar of iron: as a subject relates to an object.  Spiritual truth is not very “objective.”  It is subjective, because behind spiritual truth is a person.  We should not study God like we study things in a laboratory, reducing him to a list of attributes, axioms, facts, and figures.  We study God like we get to know a friend.  This is how scripture is to be read.  You are reading stories, songs, and personal letters.  You are not reading a book full of facts about God.  These stories, songs, letters and such invite us to experience God in a similar way that the authors of these works experienced God.  We should not read scripture or come to church like a detached physicist listening to a lecture, but like a castaway on deserted island with a letter from his beloved.  There is so much talk in defense of “absolute truth” from people making claims about God, but I wonder if they are not missing the point.  I understand their fear: they fear that with the loss of the concept of absolute truth comes moral relativism and a lack of spiritual conviction.  However, their argument might not be accomplishing their goal.  We have to remember that when we are dealing with Spiritual Truth, the ultimate truth is not an objective principle but a person.  This person is one of such splendor, power, wonder, beauty, and glory that to know Him is to love Him, worship Him, enjoy Him and seek to please Him with everything.  Jesus didn’t reveal to his disciples the nature of propositional truth; he invited them to learn that He is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Reducing such a person to a list of facts and attributes is missing the truth by a wide margin. You can only really know the truth about God by experiencing Him, the same way you can only really know music once you have heard it. Music, like God, is more than intellectual comprehension; it is also emotional understanding.



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